Liberians vote on 11 October 2011 in the first round of elections both for their country's president and to choose members of parliament (senate and house of representatives). These general elections are in their way an even greater test of this west African country's recovery from a terrible era of conflict and violence (roughly late 1989 to late 2003) than were the first post-war elections in October-November 2005.
More than 8,000 United Nations peacekeepers remain in the west African country, with a mandate to support Liberia’s own security forces. Their continued presence, four years after the return of peace, helps contain tensions and should prevent any large-scale violence after the election; but the last few weeks of the campaign have been marked by an aggressive tone and localised incidents which indicate the potential for instability.
Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is running for a second term, against her initial pledge. The first elected female head of state in Africa seems on the eve of polling to have an edge in the face of an opposition that features some of the most familiar names of modern Liberian politics.
These include the lawyer and former senator Charles Brumskine, and the former UN diplomat and legal expert Winston Tubman (whose vice-presidential candidate is the former footballer George Weah). Johnson-Sirleaf has the advantages of incumbency and of leading the destroyed country's economic and social revival, but she has received some harsh local criticism on account of her government’s failures in the areas of anti-corruption, decentralisation and national reconciliation. Her popularity in the west - symbolised by her receipt of the Nobel peace prize for 2011, along with her compatriot Leymah Gbowee - is not always matched at home, and she might be forced to an uncertain run-off against one of her rivals.
Liberia has undoubtedly made progress over the last six years in its efforts to rebuild a state that was, even before the long years of civil war, weak and ineffective. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's strong personality and international career provided early reassurance to external partners that political will existed to build a new Liberia that would become gradually and permanently free from violence, dictatorship, elite confiscation of wealth and the ethnic discrimination that have marked its history. Since 2006, she has used her high international visibility to help ensure that both governmental partners and NGOs - which played a decisive role in restoring peace to Liberia - remain supportive.
This political will survives (even if it is difficult to measure), and with it the hope that economic and social development will materialise and peace be preserved in the years to come. Yet no great leap forward has occurred, and Liberia remains at risk of getting stuck in a position of permanent weakness and strong dependence on international aid - a function of its plantation economy.
This finding is not in itself surprising. The decades of non-governance and civil wars sapped what little state existed, caused disintegration of the social fabric, destroyed traditional values, and ensured that a generation of Liberians grew up in a context of extreme violence and was thus unaccustomed to the demands of living in a country at peace. What is at issue is not just the experience of civil war, but the duration, intensity and extreme forms of violence committed during armed conflicts since 1990, and even the state of the country before it tipped over into war. The legacy to overcome is formidable.
An aspect of this is that post-war Liberia has had to deal with players who gained political influence during the decades of violence and corruption. Many had made their way into the country’s highest institutions, from the executive branch to the two houses of parliament (for example, the notorious former warlord Prince Yormie Johnson, who was elected senator in 2005, is this year a presidential candidate). They could not be expected to have any fierce determination to reform Liberia in the direction of social equity; to possess the ability and desire to design and promote key reforms; to seek justice for serious crimes committed during the years of conflict; or to work for national reconciliation.
The strong legacy of violence in Liberian society means that since the end of the civil war, the focus has been on security. The international military and police presence embodied by the UN Mission in Liberia (Unmil) has so far been the main guarantee of the preservation of peace. There has been real progress in the creation ex nihilo of a new army and police and the establishment of a national-security sector that is now able to cope with some degree of threats; but the failings of the police - particularly its extremely limited deployment outside the capital - make an international-security presence imperative.
Several reforms are now essential: an investment in community policing and informal spaces of conflict-management at both urban and rural levels; support for institutional management of land disputes through the reinforcement of the land-reform commission; making the planned, and welcome, regional hubs (funded initially by the UN Peacebuilding Fund) financially sustainable; and bringing the police and justice system closer to people outside Monrovia. Liberians need to see substantial achievements of this type to believe in the future.
The most serious threat to the security of Liberia, however, is that posed by the persistence of mercenary activities and related arms-trafficking. The post-election crisis in Côte d'Ivoire - where hundreds of young fighters were recruited and trained, albeit briefly, to use weapons of war, in return for small amounts of cash - reveals the extent of the problem across the entire region. The lack of precise information on the number of Liberian mercenaries engaged in Côte d'Ivoire, the networks that enabled their recruitment, their previous experiences, the scale of weapons importation into Liberia, and the presence of Ivorian military - all this is extremely worrying.
The UN missions in Liberia and in Côte d’Ivoire, in collaboration with the national governments, must continue to address the threat of mercenaries and militias using all available military and financial means to meet this major challenge to peace and security in West Africa. The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) can play an important role in coordinating such efforts.
If Liberia's peace is to be secured for the foreseeable future, there must be continued international support of the army, police, other security agencies and the judiciary. But any investment needs also to have as its objective a wider transformation of politics, economy, and society.
In political terms this means taking seriously such issues as the regulation of political parties,encouraging transparency in funding arrangements, civic education of militants, the practice of internal democracy, and providing incentives for young people to engage in political activity rather than just in the shelter of foreign-funded civil-society organisations.
These are the fundamental conditions for a gradual and effective decentralisation that can respond well to the practical concerns of people at the grassroots. They are also vital instruments in the emergence of a new generation of opinion-leaders at local, regional and national levels that breaks from the culture of violence and of privatisation of the public good. These deeper changes, far more than the rituals of an election, are the route to improve significantly the quality of political governance. They will also curb corruption, which (according to a survey in June 2011) 63% of Liberians see as the primary cause of the past wars.
In economic and social terms, sustainable transformation in Liberia requires continuous investment in the training of staff of ministries and public institutions, and the creation of new graduate schools and institutes of technical and vocational training tailored to potential areas of rapid economic development (agriculture, agribusiness, mining, and larger-scale urban services). The lack of human resources and expertise is a major constraint on investment and the recruitment of local staff in Liberia. The existence of a broad group of young Liberians able to show its peers that a better life is possible - without violence, and without permanent dependence on parents or guardians - is key to the country's future.
Liberia's continued recovery is surrounded by uncertainty. After the elections, all concerned bodies - Liberia's president and parliamentarians, the UN Peacebuilding Commission, and all international partners - must work to overcome the serious dangers that persist. Liberians need and deserve a common effort and a long-term commitment.